PULLMAN – On the eve of Senior Day at Washington State, dinner for the team was at the coach’s house – which meant that Tony Bennett had to come up with the entertainment, too.
In lieu of Wii trapshooting or Pictionary or arm wrestling, Bennett had each of the Cougars write down a memorable moment pertaining to the team’s five seniors. Some were funny, some were serious and – it can be presumed – some probably probed the boundaries of good taste, these guys being just this side or that of 21.
“It was pretty cool – but it took two hours,” Bennett laughed. “I thought it was going to be a half-hour deal. We turned it into a two-hour thing – a bunch of ladies sitting around talking.”
Not quite 20 hours later, Bennett walked into the WSU locker room, benumbed by the combat of a 51-49 overtime win over the 14th-ranked team in the nation and the Chip Hilton ending. There he bumped into Caleb Forrest, one of those seniors.
“Can I add another memory?” Forrest asked.
“Absolutely,” Bennett replied.
It need not be written down. For the Cougars, the 10,712 jubilant witnesses at Friel Court and anyone connected by hi-def or low, the image is burned into the mind’s eye:
Taylor Rochestie, signing off.
Sure, there are games still to be played – maybe even back here at Friel if there is an NIT date in the Cougars’ future. But this was goodbye, officially, and it required a dramatist’s sense of theater.
Good thing for the Cougs that they have one on scholarship.
With Friel frantic, Wazzu down a point and the emotional well-being – for the weekend, anyway – of way too many friends and family members on the line, Rochestie backed off Arizona State defender Derek Glasser with a quick jab step and rose up from 28 feet away, the basketball chambered in that hair-trigger left hand.
“I just said, ‘This shot has to go in – it has to,’ ” Rochestie remembered.
The clock read 2.3 when the ball whistled through the net.
We have seen this before in different incarnations, with different readings on the timer. There was the high-arching hoop with 17 seconds to play that essentially beat Stanford this season, and the 3-point dagger with 28 seconds to go that bagged Gonzaga a year ago.
“I remember when we got him from Tulane,” Bennett said. “I can’t remember who said it – I think it was one of their former assistants – but he said, ‘This kid makes a lot of game-winners.’ He did it as a freshman and they weren’t a great team then, but I think he had two game-winners. And he did it again.”
With a stroke fraught with all sorts of implications, because he has not always been a hero this year.
In December, in fact, he was a bit of a mess – eight turnovers in one game, 12 missed shots in another, too many losses in games the Cougars needed to be statements. Wazzu missed the heart-and-soul seniors who had moved on after last season, and as the point guard Rochestie was straining to pull together the disparate talents of the remaining veterans and some raw freshmen – and find his own way in the process.
It has been a fitful journey even as recently as two weekends ago, when the Cougars swooned at the finish in a home loss to Oregon State.
Suddenly, there are possibilities – though no one needs to get carried away.
Whatever the Cougs might yet achieve, Saturday and the recent signature wins against UCLA and Arizona are as much about recapturing what the program has established – what Rochestie and fellow seniors Aron Baynes, Forrest and Daven Harmeling were a major part of and what at times seemed to be slipping away with the won-lost record and all the muddling around in the Pac-10’s lower reaches.
It was getting away Saturday, too, until the last desperate seconds.
“I just wanted to make a play – that’s what I tell myself at the end of the game,” Rochestie said of the last shot. “I just wanted to make the right play.”
Time and space argued against another drive. Still, 28 feet?
“We have 100 percent belief in him,” Baynes said. “I had pretty good rebounding position, but when the shot went up I started walking back because I thought it was good.”
Oh, it was better than good.
It is rare enough that a player gets a chance to write his own ending, but Rochestie penned an entire storybook at Wazzu. Growing up in California dreaming of playing in the Pac-10, he found a program that would have him after that year’s detour to Tulane. A year ago, he surrendered his scholarship to help Bennett restock the program, though circumstances later restored his ride.
“I’m happy I won the game with that shot for this team, but I could really care less about myself. Just seeing these guys and their faces after the game was an unbelievable experience,” Rochestie said.
“If we have to leave, this is the way to leave.”